Zion Canyon Hikes
The trails in Zion Canyon provide perspectives of Zion National Park that are not available from the roads. Many of the hiking trails require long ascents but aren't too difficult at a leisurely pace. Carry water on all but the shortest walks. Descriptions of the following trails are given in order from the mouth of Zion Canyon to the Virgin River Narrows.
Experienced hikers can do countless off-trail routes in the canyons and plateaus surrounding Zion Canyon; rangers can suggest areas. Rappelling and other climbing skills may be needed to negotiate drops in some of the more remote canyons. Groups cannot exceed 12 hikers per trail or drainage.
Overnight hikers must obtain backcountry permits ($5) from either the Zion Canyon or Kolob Canyons Visitor Center. Some areas of the park—mainly those near roads and major trails—are closed to overnight use. Zion Lodge offers shuttle services for hikers, or you can check the Backcountry Shuttle Board at the visitor center.
- Shuttle Stop: Visitor Center
From a trailhead north of Watchman Campground, the trail climbs 370 feet to a bench below Watchman Peak, the prominent mountain southeast of the visitor center. Views encompass lower Zion Canyon and the town of Springdale. The well-graded trail follows a side canyon past some springs, then ascends to the overlook; the distance is 2.4 miles round-trip and takes about two hours. Trees and plants line the way. In summer, it's best to get an early start. Rangers lead nature walks during the main season.
- Shuttle Stops: Visitor Center and Canyon Junction
This two-mile paved trail runs from the South Campground to the Canyon Junction shuttle bus stop. For most of its distance, it skirts the Virgin River and makes for a nice early morning or evening stroll. Listen for the trilling song of the canyon wren, then try to spot the small bird in the bushes. The accessible Pa'rus Trail is the only trail in the park that's open to bicycles and pets.
Sand Bench Trail
- Shuttle Stops: Court of the Patriarchs and Zion Lodge
This easy loop has good views of the Three Patriarchs, the Streaked Wall, and other monuments of lower Zion Canyon. The trail is 1.7 miles long with a 500-foot elevation gain; allow about three hours. During the main season, Zion Lodge organizes three-hour horseback rides on the trail. (The horses churn up dust and leave an uneven surface, though, so most hikers prefer to go elsewhere.) The trail soon leaves the riparian forest along Birch Creek and climbs onto the dry benchland. Piñon pine, juniper, sand sage, yucca, prickly pear cactus, and other high-desert plants and animals live here. Hikers can get off the shuttle at the Court of the Patriarchs Viewpoint, walk across the scenic drive, then follow a service road to the footbridge and trailhead. A 1.2-mile trail along the river connects the trailhead with Zion Lodge. In warmer months, try to hike in early morning or late afternoon.
Emerald Pools Trails
- Shuttle Stop: Zion Lodge
Three spring-fed pools, small waterfalls, and views of Zion Canyon make this climb worthwhile. You have a choice of three trails. The easiest is the paved trail to the Lower Pool; cross the footbridge near Zion Lodge and turn right and go 0.6 mile. The Middle Pool can be reached by continuing 0.2 mile on this trail or by taking a totally different trail from the footbridge at Zion Lodge (after crossing the bridge, turn left, then go right up the trail). Together these trails make a 1.8-mile round-trip loop. A third trail begins at the Grotto Picnic Area, crosses a footbridge, and turns left to continue 0.7 mile; the trail forks left to the Lower Pool and right to the Middle Pool. A steep 0.4-mile trail leads from the Middle Pool to Upper Emerald Pool. This magical spot has a white-sand beach and towering cliffs rising above. Allow 1-3 hours to visit the pools, and don't expect to find solitude; these relatively easy trails are quite popular.
West Rim Trail
- Shuttle Stop: The Grotto
This strenuous trail leads to some of the best views of Zion Canyon. Backpackers can continue on the West Rim Trail to Lava Point and other destinations in the Kolob region. Start from Grotto Picnic Area (elev. 4,300 feet) and cross the footbridge, then turn right along the river. The trail climbs the slopes and enters the cool and shady depths of Refrigerator Canyon. Walter's Wiggles, a series of 21 closely spaced switchbacks, wind up to Scout Lookout and a trail junction—four miles round-trip and a 1,050-foot elevation gain. Scout Lookout has fine views of Zion Canyon. The trail is paved and well graded to this point. Turn right and go one-half mile at the junction to reach the summit of Angels Landing.
Angels Landing rises as a sheer-walled monolith 1,500 feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River. Although the trail to the summit is rough, chains provide security in the more exposed places. The climb is safe with care and good weather, but don't go if the trail is covered with snow or ice or if thunderstorms threaten. Children must be closely supervised, and people who are afraid of heights should skip this trail. Once on top, you'll see why Angels Landing got its name—the panorama makes all the effort worthwhile. Average hiking time for the round-trip between Grotto Picnic Area and Angels Landing is four hours, best hiked during the cooler morning hours.
Energetic hikers can continue 4.8 miles on the main trail from Scout Lookout to West Rim Viewpoint, which overlooks the Right Fork of North Creek. This strenuous 12.8-mile round-trip from Grotto Picnic Area has a 3,070-foot elevation gain. West Rim Trail continues through Zion's backcountry to Lava Point (elev. 7,890 feet), where there's a primitive campground. A car shuttle and one or more days are needed to hike the 13.3 miles (one-way) from Grotto Picnic Area. You'll have an easier hike by starting at Lava Point and hiking down to the picnic area; even so, be prepared for a long day hike. The trail has little or no water in some seasons.
Weeping Rock Trail
- Shuttle Stop: Weeping Rock
A favorite with visitors, this easy trail winds past lush vegetation and wildflowers to a series of cliffside springs above an overhang. Thousands of water droplets glisten in the afternoon sun. The springs emerge where water seeping through more than 2,000 feet of Navajo sandstone meets a layer of impervious shale. The paved trail is a half-mile round-trip with a 100-foot elevation gain. Signs along the way identify some of the trees and plants.
Observation Point Trail
- Shuttle Stop: Weeping Rock
This strenuous trail climbs 2,150 feet in 3.6 highly scenic miles to Observation Point (elev. 6,507 feet) on the edge of Zion Canyon. Allow about six hours for the round-trip. Trails branch off along the way to Hidden Canyon, upper Echo Canyon, East Entrance, East Mesa, and other destinations. The first of many switchbacks begins a short way up from the trailhead at Weeping Rock parking area. The junction for Hidden Canyon Trail appears after 0.8 mile. Several switchbacks later, the trail enters sinuous Echo Canyon. This incredibly narrow chasm can be explored for short distances upstream and downstream to deep pools and pour-offs. Echo Canyon Trail branches to the right at about the halfway point; this rough trail continues farther up the canyon and connects with trails to Cable Mountain, Deertrap Mountain, and the East Entrance Station (on Zion-Mount Carmel Highway). The East Rim Trail then climbs slickrock slopes above Echo Canyon with many fine views. Parts of the trail are cut right into the cliffs (work was done in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps). You'll reach the rim at last after three miles of steady climbing. Then it's an easy 0.6 mile through a forest of piñon pine, juniper, Gambel oak, manzanita, sage, and some ponderosa pine to Observation Point. Impressive views take in Zion Canyon below and mountains and mesas all around. The East Mesa Trail turns right about 0.3 mile before Observation Point and follows the plateau northeast to a dirt road outside the park.
- Shuttle Stop: Weeping Rock
See if you can spot the entrance to Hidden Canyon from below. Inside the narrow canyon await small sandstone caves, a little natural arch, and diverse plantlife. The high walls, rarely more than 65 feet apart, block sunlight except for a short time at midday. Hiking distance on the moderately difficult trail is about three miles round-trip between the Weeping Rock parking area and the lower canyon; follow the East Rim Trail 0.8 mile, then turn right and go 0.7 mile on Hidden Canyon Trail to the canyon entrance. Footing can be a bit difficult in places because of loose sand, but chains provide handholds on the more exposed sections. Steps chopped into the rock just inside Hidden Canyon help bypass some deep pools. Allow 3-4 hours for the round-trip; the elevation change is about 1,000 feet. After heavy rains and spring runoff, the creek forms a small waterfall at the canyon entrance. The canyon is about one mile long and mostly easy walking, although the trail fades away. Look for the arch on the right about one-half mile up the canyon.
- Shuttle Stop: Temple of Sinawava
This is one of the most popular hikes in the park and, except for the Pa'rus, it's the easiest. The nearly level paved trail begins at the end of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and winds one mile upstream along the river to the Virgin River Narrows. Allow about two hours to take in the scenery—it's a good place to see Zion's lovely hanging gardens. Countless springs and seeps on the canyon walls support luxuriant plant growth and swamps. Most of the springs occur at the contact between the porous Navajo sandstone and the less permeable Kayenta Formation below. The water and vegetation attract abundant wildlife; keep an eye out for birds and animals and their tracks. At trail's end, the canyon is wide enough for only the river. Hikers continuing upstream must wade and sometimes even swim. Late morning is the best time for photography. In autumn, cottonwoods and maples display bright splashes of color.
- Shuttle Stop: Temple of Sinawava
Upper Zion Canyon is probably the most famous backcountry area in the park, yet it's also one of the most strenuous. There's no trail and you'll be wading much of the time in the river, which is usually knee- to chest-deep. In places, the high, fluted walls of the upper North Fork of the Virgin River are only 20 feet apart, and very little sunlight penetrates the depths. Mysterious side canyons beckon.
Hikers should be well prepared and in good condition—river hiking is more tiring than hiking over dry land. The major hazards are flash floods and hypothermia. Finding the right time to go through can be tricky: spring runoff is too high, summer thunderstorms bring hazardous flash floods, and winter is too cold. That leaves just part of early summer (mid-June-mid-July) and early autumn (mid-Sept.-mid-Oct.) as the best bets. You can get through the entire 16-mile (one-way) Narrows in about 12 hours, although two days are best to enjoy the beauty of the place. Children under 12 shouldn't attempt hiking the entire canyon.
Don't be tempted to wear river sandals or sneakers up the Narrows; it's easy to twist an ankle on the slippery rocks. If you have a pair of hiking boots that you don't mind drenching, they'll work, but an even better solution is available from the Zion Adventure Company (36 Lion Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-1001, www.zionadventures.com) and other Springdale outfitters. They rent specially designed river-hiking boots, along with neoprene socks, walking sticks, and, in cool weather, dry suits. Boots, socks, and sticks rent for $19 for the first day, $17.50 for each additional day; with a dry suit the package costs $45 for the first day, $22.50 for each additional day. They also provide a valuable orientation to hiking the Narrows and lead tours of the section below Orderville Canyon (about $150 per person depending on group size and season).
Talk with rangers at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center before starting a trip; they also have a handout with useful information on planning a Narrows hike. No permit is needed if you're just going partway in and back in one day, although you must first check conditions and the weather forecast with rangers. Permits are required for overnight hikes, which must be "top down," starting at Chamberlain's Ranch and hiking downstream to the Riverside Walk; get permits from the backcountry desk at the visitor center the day before you plan to hike or the morning of your hike (7 a.m.-noon) or by applying at https://zionpermits.nps.gov. You will also be issued a plastic bag specially designed to collect human waste. Only one-night stays are allowed. No camping is permitted below Big Springs. Group size for hiking and camping is limited to 12 along the entire route.
A downstream hike saves not only climbing but also the work of fighting the river currents. If you're planning to hike the full length of the Narrows, it is highly recommended that you take the downstream route. The main hitch is that this requires a shuttle to the upper trailhead near Chamberlain's Ranch, reached by an 18-mile dirt road that turns north from Highway 9 east of the park. The lower trailhead is at the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The elevation change is 1,280 feet. During the summer, Zion Rock and Mountain Guides (1458 Zion Park Blvd., 435/772-3303) offers a daily shuttle to Chamberlain's Ranch, leaving at 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. Make shuttle reservations between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on the day before you want to ride. The fee is $30 per person, with a small discount if you rent gear from them. Zion Adventure Company (435/772-1001) has a similar service.
A good half-day trip begins at the end of the Riverside Walk and follows the Narrows 1.5 miles (about two hours) upstream to Orderville Canyon, then back the same way. Orderville Canyon makes a good destination in itself; you can hike quite a ways up from Zion Canyon.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition